Sometimes I feel lazy. Sometimes I don't have a whole blog post in me. Sometimes I just want to show you some literary links.
1. Documents newly discovered in Penzance, England (hidden perhaps by pirates?) indicate for the first time that Victor Hugo based his Hunchback of Notre Dame on a real hunchbacked sculptor hired to work on the great church's restoration. The documents describe a Monsieur Trajan, or Mon Le Bossu, as a "worthy, fatherly and amiable man" who did not like to socialize with the other restoration workers.
3. Oxford University Press wants you to adopt a word. They've got lots of unwanted words, and they'll all be put down if you don't.
The image in this week's Litkicks Mystery Spot #7 is from a 1951 aerial map of New York City. It shows the southeast corner of Central Park, a location immortalized in J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. This is where Holden Caulfield stared at ducks in a pond and wondered where they would go in the winter when the pond froze. And it's where he watched his younger sister Phoebe ride on a carousel at the touching end of the book.
Has anyone misplaced a renaissance? Say, a Germanic one, about two centuries old?
We all might have, according to cultural historian Peter Watson's thick new book The German Genius: Europe's Third Renaissance, the Second Scientific Revolution, and the Twentieth Century. It's a big thesis, but the evidence is surprisingly strong. A summary on the book's back cover states the case:
From the end of the Baroque era and the death of Bach to the rise of Hitler in 1933, Germany was transformed from a poor relation among Western nations into a dominant intellectual and cultural force -- more creative and influential than France, Britain, Italy, Holland, and the United States. In the early decades of the twentieth century, German artists, writers, scholars, philosophers, scientists, and engineers were leading their freshly unified country to new and unimagined heights. By 1933, Germans had won more Nobel Prizes than any other nationals, and more than the British and Americans combined. Yet this remarkable genius was cut down in its prime by Adolf Hitler and his disastrous Third Reich—a brutal legacy that has overshadowed the nation's achievements ever since.
(Hopeful writers should know that there are many paths to literary success. Here's Alan Bisbort, author of books like Beatniks: A Guide to American Subculture and Cell 2455: Death Row, on how he stumbled into his best-selling series. -- Levi)
Can you tell me what two literary legends met for the first time on (or about) Dec. 20, 1946 at 1116 Amsterdam Avenue? What about a similar meeting of the pens on November 29, 1925 in Washington D.C., at the restaurant in the Wardman Park Hotel?
The first is, as close as I can date it using published letters by all connected parties, the when and where for Jack Kerouac’s first encounter with Neal Cassady. This took place in Hal Chase’s Livingston Hall dorm room at Columbia University. Chase was from Denver, where he’d been friends with Cassady. For weeks, he had regaled his friends around campus about the “unbelievably crazy quixotic” Cassady, who was planning a New York visit with his wife, LuAnne Henderson. It was a less than exhilarating initial encounter for the future drivers of the Beat Generation; Kerouac was with a group of people and the two didn’t really bond. The more legendary meeting between the future Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty took place a few days later -- a meeting immortalized in On the Road -- when Kerouac visited Cassady by himself in the Spanish Harlem cold-water flat where he and LuAnne were staying.
1. Here's a really good piece by British novelist Tom McCarthy, one of the brighter literary lights of our time: Technology and the Novel: From Blake to Ballard.
2. Jackson Ellis interviews poet Diane DiPrima.
(All writers have to break through barriers, but few have to face the kind that Claudia Moscovici struggled with to produce her first novel, Velvet Totalitarianism, which Ken Kalfus calls "a taut political thriller, a meditation on totalitarianism, an expose of the Ceausescu regime, and a moving fictionalized memoir of one family's quest for freedom". Even in the changed atmosphere of today's Eastern Europe, publishers like Curtea Veche struggle with repression of various kinds (note: this page is in Romanian, but Google auto-translate works pretty well). I asked Claudia to share with Litkicks readers her story -- how she managed to become a writer, why she wrote this book, and what she thinks literature means to Romania. Here's her story. -- Levi)
My first novel, Velvet Totalitarianism, took me about ten years to write. It took me so long partly because I wrote this book while also teaching literature and philosophy, writing scholarly books and raising a family. It took me a long time to write it also because I had to do a lot of historical research for it. When one works for so long on one book, the interrelated questions of motivation and intended audience become all the more relevant. As I was writing Velvet Totalitarianism, I asked myself often: why write historical fiction about the Cold War, an era which is now relegated mostly to history books? Why is the history of Romanian communism so important to me and whom do I hope to touch in writing fiction about it? An anecdote brought these questions into sharper focus.
The greatest philosophical mission of our time, as far as I can tell, is to rescue a belief system -- Pacifism, defined on Wikipedia as "the opposition to war or violence as a means of settling disputes or gaining advantage" -- from its death bed.
Pacifism is not quite dead yet, but it must be in a coma. In any typical conversation about international politics, the mention of peace talks or agreements will be laughed or scoffed at. It's our conventional wisdom that meaningful compromise will never be found between Israel and Palestine, or India and Pakistan, or North and South Korea. It's widely accepted that various African failed states like Somalia, Congo and Sudan are beyond repair. Even my favorite President Barack Obama, who has clearly learned a lot from the great pacifist Martin Luther King, has not found a strategy for the US war in Afghanistan that differs significantly from George W. Bush's.
You folks did great this time -- not a single wrong guess! Indeed, the answer to yesterday's quiz question is the La Mancha region in Central Spain, north of Toledo and south of Madrid, where Miguel de Cervantes set his great comic novel Don Quixote.
Cervantes did not live in the La Mancha region himself, but he was born nearby in Central Spain and was certainly familiar with the area. A town called Cervantes can also be found in this vicinity, though I have not been able to figure out whether he was named for this town or it was named for him (if anybody knows, please fill us in). Some literary experts believe that he chose the La Mancha region as the home for his hero just so he could name him "Don Quixote de la Mancha" (this was apparently funny, as "mancha" meant "stain").
(Yeah, we know that everybody's talking about the Football World Cup and the Celtics/Lakers NBA Finals right now. Well, here at Litkicks we've never cared what anybody else was talking about, and baseball remains the greatest American literary sport. Here's an extensive roundup of the classic legacy by Alan Bisbort, author of Beatniks: A Guide To An American Subculture, who last played the game competitively when he was 14. Enjoy! -- Levi)
Baseball is the cruelest sport. How else to explain its tug upon the heartstrings and psyches of so many good writers?
Other sports, of course, have attracted their own forest-leveling share of books and even a few classics. Football, for example, spawned Fred Exley’s A Fan’s Notes, Kerouac’s Vanity of Duluoz (which, for some reason, is better upon rereading), Run to Daylight by Coach Vince Lombardi, I Am Third by Gale Sayers and Paper Lion by George Plimpton. Basketball has A Sense of Where You Are by John McPhee (about a young Bill Bradley) and more recently To Hate Like This Is to be Happy Forever by Will Blythe, about the rivalry between Duke and UNC men’s college basketball teams. Boxing has its own cottage writing industry, of course; Norman Mailer and A.J. Liebling being the heavyweight chroniclers of the “sweet science” (I never understood that nickname), while Nick Tosches’ Sonny Liston biography and Thom Jones’ collections of short stories, Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine and A Pugilist at Rest, at least deserving of a title shot. Soccer, known as football everywhere else, has spawned Among the Thugs, by Bill Buford (though this wasn’t so much about the sport as it was about the “hooligans” whose sociopathic off-field behavior recalls Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness) and Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby. David Foster Wallace writes about tennis in Infinite Jest, and some consider Andre Agassi's intense autobiography Open to be a future classic. Fishing has hauled in some whoppers, too -- Trout Fishing In America, A River Runs Through it, The Old Man and the Sea, Far Tortuga -- but this is only if you count fishing as a sport.
2. I don't always finish his books, but I always get a kick out of Chuck Palahniuk. His signature novel Fight Club established him as a guy's guy kind of writer, and he still carries an aura of sweat and blood and testosterone (not to mention soap). Give the guy credit for throwing curveballs at his readers, because several of his follow-up works (like Diary and the new Tell-All) seem to lavish in a feminine sensibility. Tell-All is a send-up of vintage Hollywood, featuring a pampered aging movie actress and the allegedly dubious literary legacy of Lillian Hellman. Honestly, the book baffles me, and I had to stop reading it because I felt I did not know enough about the era it is parodying to understand the references. And yet, even this slap in the face to Palahniuk's sweaty male following does not seem to hurt his sales (nor has the author's revelation that he is gay) I don't always finish Chuck Palahniuk's books, but I will always be fascinated by his mystique, and curious about what the hell weird book he's going to write next.